Today is ANZAC Day, Australia’s true national holiday. It’s always been one of my favourite days of the year. Beer, two-up and football…does it get any better?
But of course it is much more than that. I grew up fascinated by war…not in a nut-job, shaved head, gun-loving kind of way. The fascination stemmed I think from the seeming futility of it all. Why would people do this to each other?
And it wasn’t because Dad was a Vietnam veteran, a conscript at 21 before I was even a proverbial glint in his eye. Like most diggers, he doesn’t talk about the war. I know he was wounded and came back home six months before his two-year national service ended. I know bad things happened. But that’s about it.
I started on The Great War and never really moved on. The war to end all wars was so immense and so shocking I couldn’t get past it.
For many years Australia’s involvement in The Great War was all about Gallipoli. It was our ‘baptism of fire’ and ‘forged our national identity’. Befitting of the area where it took place, it was also the source of much mythology.
But Australia’s role in The Great War peaked in 1918, not 1915. For my 12th Christmas I received a book – The ANZACS, by Patsy Adam-Smith. It was here that I first read about Australia’s exploits on the Western Front.
In 2008 my wife and I went to the inaugural ANZAC Day ceremony in Northern France. It was hard to believe it had taken nearly 100 years to commemorate an ANZAC day battle that helped turn the tide of The Great War.
So today’s essay is dedicated to the battle for the village of Villers-Bretonneux, which took place on April 24–25, 1918.
‘Villers-Bretonneux in early April (of 1918) was just about the most important town in the war. If offered the Germans the best approach to Amiens. The town lay on a low plateau that looked down on the spire of the great cathedral at Amiens, 10 miles away.’
So writes Les Carlyon in his brilliant and parochial, The Great War. It is a book about the men of the war as much as the war itself. A must read.
On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive, aimed at driving the allies back and splitting the British and French Armies. The town of Amiens was vital. It was a rail centre (thus vital to the supply effort) and also roughly where the French and British lines met. The Brits (and the ANZAC divisions) were positioned north of Amiens, while the French were to the south.
For the first few weeks the German’s rapidly advanced, taking all the ground the allies had fought so hard for during 1916 and 1917.
Many British divisions were over run and a chaotic retreat ensued. The hardened and experienced ANZAC divisions were sent south to plug the holes.
By 30 March the German attack was running out of steam. But General Ludendorff thought if he could just take Villers-Bretonneux, Amiens would be next and the war would be won.
The Australian’s arrived at Villers-Bretonneux to find it empty. The villagers had fled. That’s because the Germans were on their way. They attacked on 4 April. Only a costly Australian counter-attack saved the village that night.
But the Germans were not done with. Soon after, the Australians were moved north of the village. The British 8th Division, full of inexperienced reinforcements, now defended Villers-Bretonneux.
Early on the morning of 24 April, the Germans began shelling the town and soon after, the British line broke. Despite counter-attacks, the town was now in the hands of the Germans.
Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot, commander of the 15th Brigade, knew the Germans would re-take Villers-Bretonneux and had already devised a plan for an attack.
The French General Foch, recently appointed Supreme Commander of the allied armies, was getting worried and ordered Villers-Bretonneux to be re-taken immediately.
So a daring night attack was devised, with Elliott’s 15th Brigade swinging around from the north, while Major-General Glasgow’s 13th Brigade was to come around from the south. The plan was to join up and encircle the village.
Jimmy Downing, author of To the Last Ridge was there as his battalion moved into position. ‘The moon sank behind clouds. There were houses burning in the town, throwing a sinister light on the scene. It was past midnight. Men muttered, “it’s Anzac Day”, smiling to each other, enlivened by the omen.’
Soon after battle was engaged and Downing describes the charge:
‘A snarl came from the throat of the mob, the fierce, low growl of tigers scenting blood. There was a howling as of demons as the 57th (battalion), fighting mad, drove through the wire, through the 59th, who sprang to their sides – through their enemy. The yelling rose high and passed to the 58th and 60th, who were in another mob on the left. Baying like hell hounds, they also charged. The wild cry rose to a voluminous, vengeful roar that was heard by the 13th Brigade on the right of Villers-Bretonneux.’
Resistance was stiff on the southern side of the town and the 13th Brigade had a tough time of it. They didn’t quite meet up with the 15th Brigade to the north, but they had done enough to cut the Germans in the town off.
By dawn on ANZAC Day, 1918, the British and Australians began clearing the Germans out of Villers-Bretonneux. The emergency was over.
Years later, British Brigadier-General Grogan, who was at the scene of the battle, wrote:
‘Villers-Bretonneux will ever be remembered for perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war – the successful counter-attack by night across unknown and difficult ground, at a few hours notice, by the Australian soldier.’
The victory at Villers-Bretonneux finally turned the tide, decisively, in the allies’ favour.
Soon after, General Monash gained a small but decisive victory at Hamel. It was important for the tactics that Monash used. A combination of infantry, air support, tanks and artillery that had not been used before.
This became the blueprint for the Battle of Amiens, on 8 August, ‘a black day’ for the German army according to General Ludendorff.
The ANZAC divisions (which included one NZ division) along with the Canadians formed the spearhead for this attack and all subsequent attacks right up until October 1918.
The ANZACs formed the main fighting force in the main battles that year for the first and (probably) last time in history. The contribution of their Commander, General John Monash, did not go unnoticed.
On 12 August 1918 Monash was knighted in the field, the first such honour to be awarded by a British Monarch in over 200 years. Fittingly, Monash now graces our highest currency denomination, the $100 note.
But back then, the ANZACs were a part of the British Army. Their victories were therefore attributed to the British. Their heroics were lost to society for many years.
While the mythology of Gallipoli grew, the magnitude of the ANZAC’s feats on the Western Front, particularly in 1918, remained locked in war dairies and history books.
But in recent years that has changed. And that is a good thing.
Happy ANZAC Day.
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